Big potential for radio in Wales

Steve Johnson and Dr Philip Mitchell respond to the IWA Media Audit’s findings on radio.

We are grateful to the IWA for giving us the opportunity to appraise this very timely document, one that provides an accurate overview of the Welsh radio industry at the current moment in time.

The document is thorough and comprehensive, providing useful data on analogue and DAB radio trends.  The encouraging rise in DAB radio coverage in Wales over the last seven years, illustrated here, is welcomed and is hopefully a trend that will continue.  It is re-assuring to note that a higher proportion of adults in Wales claim to own a DAB radio set than in the rest of the UK.  It also does no harm to re-iterate the relative popularity of radio in Wales, with more people tuning in than in any other other part of the United Kingdom.  The statistics provided here, underline the paucity of locally owned commercial radio stations/groups and point towards decreasing listener numbers for both of the national BBC radio stations for Wales.  The closure of two commercial radio stations (Valleys Radio and Radio Hafren) since the 2008 audit adds weight to the demand for the development of indigenous radio activity in Wales. The consolidation of ownership that has taken place since the 2008 audit, effectively reducing Wales to just three groups/brands is also not insignificant. Holistically, these latest findings would certainly seem to provide food for thought, for any interested parties considering development of the indigenous Welsh radio sector.

The report focuses on BBC and commercial radio in Wales.  That is, quite understandable, as there is less public awareness of the community radio sector throughout the UK, not just in Wales.  Community radio, the third tier of radio broadcasting, is nowhere near as prominent as its BBC and commercial counter – parts.   Community radio is however, a particularly interesting part of the broadcasting market – place, providing a distinctive voice for local communities and facing its own, particular challenges.   We argue that community radio has tremendous potential, as a purveyor of democratic participation in Wales and have chosen to focus on community radio in our response to the audit on radio in Wales.

The IWA report provides a useful, up to the minute overview of community radio in Wales.  It refers to the recent relaxation of restrictions on community radio, allowing for all stations to raise at least £15,000 P.A from commercial sources.   This is seen as a welcome step in the right direction for the Welsh community radio stations, especially the stations currently serving north Wales, such as Point FM, Tudno FM and Mon FM.  However, we argue that further reductions in limitations on streams of commercial funding are needed, in order for the Welsh stations to maintain themselves in the longer – term.   Indeed, we would suggest that a decrease in restrictions on the ability of CR stations to access commercial revenues is vital, if the CR sector is to survive independently.

There is a need for decreased reliance on other funding agencies for financial support, enabling the CR stations of Wales to use their financial independence to help in the development of robust models for economic stability.   Relaxation of financial restrictions and subsequent enhancement of independence provide the CR stations with a great opportunity to develop robust financial strategies.  Such autonomy encourages CR stations to react to future economic developments, helping them to continue delivery of social gain outcomes in their target communities throughout Wales.  With increased independence, less reliance on limited pots of funding and deregulation of the financial limitations on the sector, it is difficult to foresee a healthier long – term future for the CR sector in Wales.

Social gain is at the very heart of CR but in order for that social gain delivery to be sustained, it is clear that local people need to be able to hear it, see it and, ideally, feel that it is possible for them to be a part of the process.  It is not enough for CR stations to deliver social gain to their communities, in isolation.  It is critically important, for the future financial well–being of the sector, that the benefits of CR stations to their local communities are widely communicated.

The Welsh community radio stations, distributed throughout the country, naturally adopt a localised view of themselves and their local communities.  The stations are irrevocably linked by their very nature as community broadcasters for their locales, with the geographical and socio-economic constraints and boundaries that shaped and defined them illustrated by the accumulated data.  By their nature, the CR stations of Wales share similar day to day issues, regarding the acquisition of funding, resource management and meeting the needs of volunteers, staff, partner agencies and listeners.   The IWA report refers to the introduction of the WCRN (Wales Community Radio Network).   We would strongly encourage such collaborative activity within the Welsh community radio sector, as a gateway to collaborative information exchange, utilising increased collaboration and co-operation as a potential means of developing strategies for economic survival.  A shared sense of identity and collective solidarity is identified here as a very powerful weapon for CR in Wales in its battle to attain sustainability.  We also argue that such collusion as a single entity would increase ‘brand awareness’ of the community radio sector as a provider of social gain and enable the stations to be seen and/or heard to provide a voice for local people and community agencies.  We suggest that a website, such as the WCRN, has the potential to benefit the stations in their communication flows with their audiences, other stations and external partners. We further argue that these flows of communication should represent the needs and desires of members of the local communities, encouraging those community members, wherever possible, to be active participants as well as listeners.

Community radio offers an alternative voice to local communities, adding to the range of broadcasting options in Wales.  It facilitates increased opportunities for democratic participation, notably through the provision of hyper – local, citizen journalism.  It has rich potential, whether on FM or DAB, to provide an alternative, additional communication layer in Welsh broadcasting.  As the number of groups and/or corporations in commercial radio seemingly continue to diminish and BBC radio consolidates in reaction to licence – fee changes, we would argue that the potential impact of Welsh community radio should be recognised and supported, so it may survive and prosper as an alternative purveyor of PSB for Wales.

Dr Philip Mitchell is Head of Academic Programmes (Operations) in the Faculty of Creative Industries, University of South Wales. Steve Johnson is a Community Radio Tutor in the department.

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